Talking about our values: now that ain’t easy

This blog entry was initially posted Friday, May 28. Since then, I was informed that the President of Malawi has since pardoned the couple. Great news to be sure, but it doesn’t mean the discussion ends now….

Original post:
A friend of mine posted a message on a closed online community in response to my post on the Malawian gay couple being sentenced to 14 years in prison for “indecent practices between males.” The penultimate line of his post was “Let us all examine our individual and collective values.” And there’s the hardest thing about being a human rights defender/activist/educator: being able to create spaces where we can openly and safely dialogue about these values.

Other human rights stuff pales in comparison: you can educate people on existing laws, constitutions, international human rights standards and mechanisms, jurisprudence, legislations, you name it. But to get to the heart of the matter, you’ve got to push people to safely voice their values, and at times those values contradict with value sets of others. Sexual orientation is a contentious issue because, and let’s be frank here, anything other than heterosexual – namely, LGBT – can rub plenty of us heterosexuals the wrong way. Growing up in suburban, mostly white Anglo-Saxon Montreal, seeing a gay couple was unheard of in the 1970s. Homosexuals were gay, or derisively labelled “fags” or “faggots,” with a typical motion of the broken wrist to emphasize their gayness. As a child, I was ignorant, and ignorance has a tendency to manifest itself as cruelty.

Sometimes, mind you, ignorance manifests itself as just plain ignorance. About 6 years ago in Senegal, while facilitating a workshop, the topic of homosexuals came up and one participant raised his hand and pondered aloud: “Perhaps some men become homosexuals because they are constantly rejected by women.” Oh come on, if that were the case, I would have become gay several times over in my twenties. Instead I suggested that we discuss the topic further over lunch.

More recently, a friend and human rights educator wrote to me and indicated that we should not be discussing issues related to homosexuality because it is against the will of God. Go see Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” Gays don’t fare much better in the Quran. I’d like to think that we are in an age where we can critically reflect on passages in any religious texts and interpret them through a contemporary lens and not restrict ourselves to a limited interpretation of scripture.  

A way forward must be to discuss our individual and collective values openly in a spirit of kindness, willingness to tolerate-accept-embrace, and ultimately respect each other. Vitriolic speech for either an anti-gay or pro-gay stance has no place in this type of dialogue. The blogosphere and online comments on related stories are abundant with viewpoints from opposite ends of the spectrum. We have to express our concerns, our fears, and our hopes. But those in authority, like the judge who sentenced the couple in Malawi to 14 years in prison, should not be in a position to impose such unreasonable sentences and utter blatantly discriminatory comments justifying the prison term to protect the public from “people like you.” His sentence was a judgement based either in fear, ignorance, political pressure, or all of the above. Whatever the justification, let this case be a catalyst to encourage people to be honest and open about their values, willing to listen to others whose views may differ from theirs, and ultimately become vulnerable – and strong enough – to admit that their values can and should change over time.


One thought on “Talking about our values: now that ain’t easy

  • Thank you Paul for bringing this up (and with a follow up post too). For straight men to talk about LGBT issues openly boosts the struggle for LGBT rights. And I knwo there are a lot of heterosexuals out there who share the same view but would rather not talk about it. Yes, a safe space for discussing this is a must.

    And may I also add that we discuss this from a frame of equality?

    Again, thank you Paul. May your tribe increase 🙂


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